Time: 1-3 hours

Materials: Copies of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Handout 1, Facts about the Elderly Population in the United States

Handout 2, Three Case Studies

Handout 3, Questions on Human Dignity

Blackboard or chart paper, chalk or markers

Setting: High school - Adult groups


This activity focuses on some of the human rights concerns of those who are old and poor in the USA. It draws on data from US Census and case studies to highlight the issues and provides opportunities for local interviewing and the development of participant action projects.

1. Distribute the abbreviated list of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Note: This activity assumes some understanding of human rights and the UDHR. If this is not the case, provide basic background information, such as the brief history included in this book, concentrating on the theme of “those rights/needs to which everyone is entitled.”

2. Ask participants to identify needs that seem to become increasingly important to people as they grow old in this country. Briefly discuss their reasons for selection. Ask how these needs would be affected if the aging person were also poor.

3. Ask participants which of these needs they think are also human rights. Encourage participants to refer to the articles in the UDHR. Make a chart of those needs identified as human rights and label it “HUMAN RIGHTS/NEEDS.”

4. Move deeper into the topic through the following questions:

  • In what ways might income level, sex, race or ethnicity, disability, age, location of residence (urban/rural) affect the sorts of concerns that an elderly person might have? Note: Divide into groups for a brief discussion with each assigned one characteristic.
  • Would the list of concerns generated above be any different from the list one might develop for people in their thirties or forties? Explain.
  • What kinds of services (e.g., medical, housing, transportation) do people tend to need more often as they grow older?
  • What special kinds of living conditions (e.g., buildings with elevators, wheelchair access, social support) are older people more likely to need?
  • Which of the human rights identified above are in danger of being violated, of being denied, and in need of protection?

5. Distribute Handout 1, Facts about the Elderly Population in the United States. Ask participants to decide whether or not these facts match with their earlier statements. Ask them to identify additional facts that they need to determine the accuracy of their statements. Ask participants to generate non-statistical factors that affect one’s wellbeing, such as feeling valued or discounted, happy or sad, lonely or included, competent or helpless, and loved or rejected, that might also shed light on the conditions of the elderly.

6. Divide class into groups and assign each a case study from Handout 2, Three Case Studies. Ask them to complete Handout 3, Questions on Human Dignity. Explain that they have thirty minutes to complete this task. Check with each group to be sure they understand the instructions and have established a note-taking procedure. Remind them when ten minutes and five minutes remain.

7. Read each question and ask for a representative from one group to summarize their discussion. Ask other groups to report only where their conclusions differed. If time is limited, focus on the final three questions.


a. What issues do these case studies raise for you about human dignity? About the relationship between human rights and human needs? Between rights and responsibilities?

b. Do these factors affect the making of local and national policies aimed at helping the elderly achieve full human rights? Encourage the participants to consider other factors as well.

  • compassion
  • consensus
  • social class attitudes
  • economic/financial considerations
  • silence/invisibility
  • media treatment

8. Prepare the groups to interview elderly persons in their community. This involves identifying interviewees and creating a list of questions. These interviews might be a building block for the development of a participant action plan to address the human rights needs of the elderly poor in their community. (See Step 10, Taking Action below.)

9. Encourage participants to summarize their learnings about the inter-related nature of human needs and rights and the challenges confronting the elderly poor in this society. They might wish to learn more about some of the following topics:

  • Opportunities for the elderly to supplement social security or pension income;
  • Community outreach and educational programs for the elderly;
  • Social Security and Medicare: past, present, and future challenges;
  • Gender and aging: attitudes, demographics, and income characteristics;
  • Residence patterns in the community: living alone, with family, or in nursing homes; and
  • An historical perspective on growing old in the community.

10. Taking Action

Have participants consider the questions below as building blocks for developing an action plan on behalf of the elderly poor. Note: Refer to the activity Community Research and Action Plan, p. 42, for additional questions and a framework for developing an action project.

  • Would Raffi Hagopian, Laura Templeton, and Jose Flores (the cases in Handout 2, Three Case Studies) find support for their needs in your community?
  • Are there people with similar concerns living in your community? What support do they get and from whom?
  • Are there elderly clients of social services agencies who can help them assess the services from a human rights perspective?
  • Is there anything that the participant group can do to promote and defend the human rights of the elderly poor in their community?

Source: Written by Sushanna Ellington, Human Rights Educators Network, Amnesty International USA, and David Shiman. Adapted from F. Pratt, Education for Aging: A Teacher’s Source Book (Acton, MA: McCarthy-Towne School, 1981).

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